Carbondale — center of the art universe?
After unveiling 14 new sculptures for its annual exhibit Thursday night, the Carbondale Public Arts Commision gave the final dedication Friday to the centerpiece of the town’s permanent collection: James Surls’ “Sewing the Future” in the center of the new roundabout.
“This wonderful piece of sculpture that James has made for us in that lovely roundabout has really added a great new entrance to the town that we all love so much,” said local philanthropist Jim Calaway, who, along with his wife Connie, contributed half of the money for the piece.
The dedication took place at the Launchpad, where the plaque recognizing contributors and volunteers will be installed.
“We couldn’t put it down at the roundabout or no one would see it, or else they’d get run over,” Calaway explained.
Mayor Stacey Bernot praised all the smaller donors and volunteers who made the sculpture possible.
“In my mind, an important part of Carbondale is this thread of generosity,” she said. “It’s part of our community fabric.”
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In particular, she praised Surls’ generosity in donating his time on the piece, leaving fundraising for the cost of materials.
“It’s truly something to adopt a second hometown,” she said to Surls. “It really warms my heart that this place is special to you.”
Bernot acknowledged that some residents objected to the piece and its selection process, although many have since learned to embrace it.
“I know that there’s been some controversy, but to me, that’s art,” she said.
Surls himself took a broad view in his own speech, tracking the epicenter of arts and cultural throughout Western history until, suddenly, it disappears.
“The world of the 21st century has absolutely changed. It doesn’t make any difference where you live. You can live anywhere, and communicate instantly with anybody on the planet,” he said. “Carbondale, in my book, is the center of the universe.”
As for the piece itself, he celebrated the symbolism of each component: the flower, the vase, the crystal and, most of all, the needles that give it its name.
“A thread is like a river. You put together things with it,” he said. “Sewing the Future” is symbolic on so many levels. It covers so much territory.”
Surls’ piece is just one of around two dozen permanent sculptures scattered around Carbondale’s streets. While some predate the establishment of CPAC in 2000, many came to town as part of the rotating exhibition and were later donated by the artist, purchased and donated, or purchased directly by the commission.
The first exhibit 15 years ago drew fewer than a dozen submissions, of which five were selected. Back then, CPAC relied mostly on local publicity and heard mostly from local artists.
Now, the organization puts the call out online, and receives submissions from around the country and beyond. This year, CPAC received 47 applications, which were voted down to an eclectic assortment.
“We look for pieces that are more unique and more cutting edge, which will invoke conversation and thought,” explained CPAC member Jody Ensign. “I think the purpose of public art is to engage the whole community interacting with the art.
“We also look for pieces that work together as an interesting entire collection. There should be something for everybody,” she added. “Whether someone likes all of them or not, they still see the importance of it.”
There’s usually still a local artist or two in the mix, but the majority come from out of town and out of state. Many have never been to Carbondale before.
“Everyone who comes is blown away,” Ensign said. “They’re always impressed that a small town of 6,000 has such a strong and professionally managed art program with a national reputation.”
Mia Kaplan of Macomb, Louisiana, actually waited until she arrived in Carbondale to complete her piece, “Mtn Time,” which stands on the corner of Seventh and Main on the spot once occupied by the pink rabbit and “Ernesto” the bison. Kaplan took a day to sightsee before painting her abstract, white form with local scenes.
“I wanted to make something not only site-specific but directly responsive to the environment,” Kaplan said. In the course of her work, she also had a chance to chat with passersby, and decided to turn some of her sketches into coloring book pages for local youth, which are available at the Launchpad.
DISCARDED NO MORE
Mark Cesark is one of the local contributors to this years’ show with “RELIC,” a large steel replica of a small, stylized eagle trinket located behind the Carbondale library.
“You take these things that are basically worthless and discarded, and by monumentalizing them, they seem to become important,” he explained.
Brian Bickel is from Des Moines, Iowa, but has a local tie, having been married in Marble.
It’s fitting, then, that his piece “Union,” located in front of Town restaurant, sits on a slab of Yule Marble.
The slabs for all the new art was supplied by the Yule Marble quarry, with local companies pitching in to transport, cut and install them.
“Basically everything was donated, which is incredible,” Ensign said.
While the Public Arts Commission is the big name in Carbondale sculpture, they’re not the only one. In addition to hosting the Surls’ plaque and a piece for the exhibit, the Carbondale Council of Arts and Humanities is planning a sculpture garden as part of ongoing landscaping at the Launchpad.
“It’s a place for community to gather,” explained CCAH director Amy Kimberly.
Although the actual CPAC art tour now takes place on Thursday night, Kimberly observed that many other First Friday activities have made an effort to integrate the art that gave birth to that event.
“These business are now featuring artists again, and not all of them have done that in a long time.”
“Almost every business that’s open tonight is going to have some sort of artistic or creative element, and some have not done that in a long time,” she said. “It feels like the old days.”
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